| No self-doubt
'A historian must make do with such ideas as he has, but he might always try to send them out in better shape.' So wrote A.P. Thornton, that fine historian of the imperial idea and its enemies. Thornton's words came back to me when reading the mail I received as a consequence of my column that took a 'Long view of the raj' (The Telegraph, August 6). One reader was appalled that I had apparently praised a regime that 'looted Indians of their dignity', and 'stripped India of its natural resources, kept the population without education, without proper medical facilities... exploited the weaknesses of our society, used India and its resources to fight two World Wars'. A second reader called me 'treacherous', adding, for good measure, that I was 'a licker of Nehru's posterior'. A third concluded that I must be an 'unpaid head of a Western consulate'. Then he withdrew the caveat: my 'evil article', he said, carried 'the stamp of you somehow painfully postulating the point of view of a remunerative stream of thought'.
Now I had myself said that the British had come to India to 'plunder and exploit'. I had myself spent (not that readers of The Telegraph had any reason to know this) many years documenting the deeply flawed environmental policies of the British in India, in particular, their imposition of a forestry regime based on European models of complex tropical ecosystems. And, like many readers, I would certainly endorse the wise words of that old colonial official, Leonard Woolf, who, writing in 1967, said that he had 'no doubt that if British governments had been prepared to grant in 1900 what they refused in 1900 but granted in 1920; or to grant in 1920 what they refused in 1920 but granted in 1940; or to grant in 1940 what they refused in 1940 but granted in 1947 ' then nine-tenths of the misery, hatred, and violence, the imprisonings and terrorism, the murders, flogging, shooting, assassinations, even the racial massacres would have been avoided; the transference of power might well have been accomplished peacefully, even possibly without Partition.'
That said, in criticizing the British we must also think of what good they brought us, even if this was mostly by accident rather than design. Most important, when considering the good and bad effects of British rule, we must always be sensible of the alternatives. Indeed, the only proper way to assess the experience of colonialism is through the method of context and comparison.
The first thing to note here is that there was no India before the British came. It is anachronistic to speak of 'India' or 'Indians' when writing or speaking of the 18th century or before. It was the British who (for their own motives) made a unified political entity out of many disparate fragments. Subsequently, it was Gandhi and the freedom struggle which endowed this political unity with a social unity, a moral core, and a sense of national purpose.
Given the backwardness of military technology, and the proclivity of native chieftains to feuding, the colonization of the subcontinent was well nigh inescapable. Now, suppose that the French, the Dutch or the Portuguese had instead become the dominant European power. Would any one of them have succeeded in unifying this land mass' Or would there have been (as turned out to be the case in Africa), four or five spheres of influence, feuding with each other down to the present day' Even if one power (say the French), had 'won', would they have brought education and health to all the natives' Would their rule have been less brutal' Would their legacies have been more conducive to the building of a modern, outward-looking, democratic and independent India' The answers to these questions are, respectively: unlikely, very likely, definitely not, probably not, and almost certainly not.
The British must be compared with other European powers ' as well as with the indigenous rulers who preceded them. Were the Mughals, the Peshwas, the Nayakas or the Pathan chiefs more benign and progressive' Emphatically not, I would say. Rather, as my better trained colleagues have said. As the historian, Dharma Kumar, long ago pointed out, the state was more rapacious under the Mughals. Agricultural taxation, high though it was under the British, was actually lower than it had previously been. As the historian, Sumit Guha, has demonstrated, precolonial penal regimes were deeply discriminatory, bearing down on women and low castes, who were granted an inferior status in legal theory and practice. And as that third fine historian, S.N. Rajguru, has shown, there were many, and arguably more serious, famines in the centuries before the British came. The white rulers, and Winston Churchill especially, were unconscionably lax in providing proper relief during the Bengal famine of 1943. But the rulers of the past were no better, in fact, probably even worse.
Hindutva ideologues may cling to a roseate view of a precolonial past when peace and harmony prevailed, and milk and honey were had by all. Marxist theorists may instead place their utopia in the future. Some may even think that Indians would have been better off as subjects of the Greater Soviet Empire. However, when we dispassionately consider the alternatives, it must be said that we could have done a lot worse. Notwithstanding their motives, notwithstanding the errors and excesses of their rule, notwithstanding their commercialism and crass philistinism, as a vehicle for entering the modern world the British were better than the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Germans, the Mughals, the Peshwas, the Afghans, the Pindaris, the Sants, the Sadhus, the shankaracharyas...
In 1946, as the British prepared to leave India, the socialist Yusuf Meherally, an authentic hero of the freedom struggle, fell critically ill, and had to be rushed to New York for treatment. From his hospital bed, he had many conversations with the American writer, Bertram D. Wolfe. In my opinion, Wolfe's summary of those talks must count as absolutely the last words that can, have, or should be said by Indians about the British Raj. Wolfe writes: 'When England finally decided to withdraw from India, I watched Meherally's bitterness ebb away. There was no rancour in him. Thenceforth he talked very little about British crimes in India, though he had spent much of his life in prison under British rule. Now he spoke rather of the good things the British had contributed to Indian civilization and culture, above all the sense of justice and the safeguarding of individual and civil rights that are inherent in the British tradition. He jested about the fact that in the vast sub-continent of India there were so many people and dialects that often the only common language in which Indian intellectuals could communicate with each other was the 'language of the oppressor'.'
Wolf continues: 'I teased [Meherally] about the 'British sense of justice' which had kept him in jail so long. He answered in deep earnest: 'Even while they oppressed us, they were uncomfortable about it. A hunger strike in a British jail could get me the Bible, or your book or other works to read. In Hitler's jails or in Stalin's it would only have gotten me before a firing squad. Gandhi's whole code of non-violent resistance to the evil of foreign rule was predicated on the unspoken assumption that the English had a better nature to which they could appeal. In the land of blood purges and concentration camps that Stalin has built to sully the name of socialism the great organized campaigns of non-violent resistance to evil could never have gotten started. If Gandhi had been in the Soviet Union, he would have disappeared forever from view after his first word of protest. The English at least felt that they had to report his defiance, even while they ridiculed it and imprisoned him. And they were always terrified lest he die in one of his protest hunger strikes. That is why he taught us to hate the evil things the English did but not to hate the English or ever despair of their regeneration of our own.'
There is a Latin maxim: nil nisi bonum, speak no evil of the dead. The Meherally-Gandhi attitude is a creative adaptation ' namely, when the rulers are finally going, let us forget what was horrific about them, and keep what was decent. If, sixty years down the line, there are still Indians who fulminate against the raj, it must only be because they need to periodically and publicly proclaim their patriotism. Yusuf Meherally and Mahatma Gandhi spent years and years in British jails. If they could yet see the rulers as they did, was it because, unlike some of us, they had no self-doubt with regard to their love for and commitment to India'